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A Midsummer Night's Dream in New Orleans

William Shakespeare
Ruby in the Dust
Above the Arts

Ej Martin as Helena, Ruari Cannon as Demetrius and Lawrence O'Connor as Theseus Credit: Annabelle Narey
Sid Phoenix as Puck Credit: Annabelle Narey
Samantha Louise Clark as Hermia Credit: Annabelle Narey
Jonathan Ajayi as Lysander Credit: Annabelle Narey

This isn’t the messed-up version of the play retitling it suggests. It’s Shakespeare, cut to fit doubling by some cast, to which half a dozen numbers from New Orleans music have been added. They fit well into the setting director Linnie Reedman has chosen: a world of Voodoo when Athens is Athens, Georgia and its woods the bayous of Louisiana.

You don’t have to have an English accent to play Shakespeare; his verse can fit Louisiana rhythms, just as you can often speak it with a rap or reggae beat, as long as you understand its meaning, as most of these actors do, though some insert pauses of such length they fracture sense.

The play is staged in traverse and opens with Dr John’s song "Marie Laveau" about a Voodoo Queen while a match flickers in darkness as Titania begins the magic-making. Puck, perched on the theatre’s corner bar, begins the play. His face is a painted voodoo skull, eyes red-irised, with Sid Phoenix’s slightly drawling tones matched to the verse line.

After Puck’s brief encounter with Tristan Pegg’s fellow-fairy Mothboy (who seems to be Titania’s Indian Boy adoptee as well as leading her retinue, then doubles as Philostrate), an aging Theseus (Lawrence O’Connor) enters on hands and knees.

His more English accent suggests an education overseas. He’s ridden by a horsewhip-wielding Hippolyta (Silvana Mimone) up to some perverse hanky-panky. Declaring he “won thy love doing thee injuries” seems to refer not to battles with the Amazons but some more intimate violence.

They are interrupted by Egeus complaining that his daughter Hermia objects to marrying Demetrius, the boy he’s chosen: she’s given her heart to Lysander. Matthew Woodyatt’s Egeus is a rapid speaker without loss of accent. Immediately it felt this Midsummer Night may not be such a long one as at first seemed likely.

Jonathan Ajayi is a very angry Lysander, youthfully explosive; Ruari Cannon’s Demetrius more suave.This Lysander is a lad who is pressured by the society around him and more articulate in music. He sings Armstrong’s “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” when left with the girls: the rather timid Hermia (Samantha Louise Clark), perhaps that’s why she so often pauses, and Helena (E J Martin), more confident, even though Demetrius, whom she still loves, has dropped her.

What happens to these couples is one third of the story. Another concerns a group of workmen rehearsing a play led by Quince (O’Connor) with over-eager Bottom in the lead. Woodyatt gets his enthusiasm but tries to be funny instead of letting it happen—though he pulls it off when they perform what has become a mini-opera, which is nicely done.

The third element is the fairies, caught up in their own feud: Voodoo Titania (Mimone) creating gris-gris and David Monteith’s drug-distracted Oberon. He is an impressive-looking Voodoo priest but it’s a muddled characterisation; as he gives out substances through attendant Puck to sort the human youngsters out and embarrass his lady with a nasty trick, he sometimes doesn’t seem there, like he’s taken too much himself.

Turning the best-known lines in the play into a raging incantation over a terrified Puck seems even odder. A lot more of the loveliest poetry has just been omitted. Theseus finds the young lovers when he goes out fishing so his hunting verse is cut, the fairy wedding blessings lost and those who know the play will find much more missing. However, even with the added songs and an interval, it keeps the length down which will suit some.

There are excellent ideas here but they don’t all work and the ability to handle the language is uneven. The music is good but why not give Shakespeare’s own songs a New Orleans flavour? I got the feeling that music man Joe Evans at the piano and these several-talented actor-musicians could improvise it even—they play with such spontaneity.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton